Grassroots Football: End of Season reflections.

As the curtain falls on another year of grassroots football I thought I’d reflect on what has been an eventful season. The prevalence of Covid-19 has had a major bearing on how the season has run, but then when you factor in all of the usual ups and downs of running any kind of sporting team, it’s safe to say that things have been demanding in the extreme!

A little bit of background: regular readers will know this already, but I coach a football (soccer) team for under 12s. I’ve done it now for the past four years and it’s a source of great joy and satisfaction as well as fatigue! The highs are right up there, but the lows can be an absolute pain.

The global pandemic wrecked the previous season (2019-20), but you’d hope that this type of thing would prove to be a once in a lifetime event. Unless of course you are a Hollywood actor, or you live in the Bible. Sadly though, with wave after wave of the virus hitting, grassroots sport was paralysed again and we found ourselves back in lockdown and unable to train or play for large spells of season 20-21. In fact at one point it genuinely felt like the season would be abandoned and we’d be looking at waiting 7 or 8 months before a ball was kicked in anger again. And then, just as we were beginning to lose hope, the rules were relaxed as vaccinations took effect and we were able to get going again, albeit with tight restrictions in place.

So what are my reflections on the season gone by? Well, they’re a funny old mixture of satisfaction and extreme frustration. We finished 7th in a 10 team league. 7th in Division 7 of 8. So, it’s safe to say that our performance overall wasn’t what I’d hoped for. There have been times when we’ve played wonderful fast moving, flowing football, but there have also been times when we’ve played like a team of strangers, both to each other and to football! It’s the kind of inconsistency that leaves a lot more questions than answers and has also meant a lot of time spent trying to figure out what the problem was and how we could be more consistent as a team.

When I started coaching the team they were Under 8s. We were the 2nd team and even then there were a range of abilities. My goal – no pun intended – was always to coach my players so that they were comfortable with a ball at their feet. I’d like to think that with the majority of my players I’ve achieved that. I’ve always wanted to instill the importance of playing a quick passing game into my players. Pass to a team mate, move off the ball, look for space and look for angles; play the game on the grass, in the right way. I think that for a large proportion of the season we’ve got there with these goals, but a lot of the time physicality and focus have cost us.

So these are two areas that we need to work on with pre-season and next season in mind. I still feel like some of my lads are very immature and prone to just switching off in games and that’s when mistakes happen. Since we started playing again after lockdown in January we’ve been competitive in every game and only lost one by more than one goal. In all of these games we’ve had spells of playing wonderful football; we’ve been good to watch. And yet, there’s always the risk of a mistake.

Teaching the boys the value of a team ethic has been more important than ever this year. For a few years previous there had been a bit of a tendency for boys to mix with only the people from their primary school and it caused problems. The feeling that this was everyone’s team and that everyone was a team mate took a lot of getting through. And while I don’t think we’ve quite got the message through, we’ve definitely made great strides with it this season. You can hear it on the pitch with the encouragement that they give each other and the positivity. Rather than criticising a team mate who takes a bad touch or misses a chance, now we’re more likely to hear one of them shouting that it was “unlucky” or “just keep going, don’t let your head drop.” They’ve never been the loudest of teams, but we’ve improved vocally this year and it’s something I’m genuinely happy about.

The team ethic has come into play with our physicality too. While some teams have fielded several players that look like fully grown men this year, we’re still quite a small bunch. It’s meant that we’ve been bullied off the ball at times over the years and worse still, we’ve allowed it to happen and simply complained, rather than trying to be stronger. That changed a little in the period since around April this year. We’ve talked and talked about it in training and before, during and after games and the message seems to be getting through – don’t cheat, but fight for the right to keep the ball and win football matches. This is definitely something that we need to keep working on as well as carrying it forward for next season.

Next season will be a big step up for my team. They move from playing 9-a-side football to 11-a-side and that means playing on a bigger pitch with bigger goals. We’ll have to adapt to new positions and different formations and all of this presents a real challenge. I’m hoping that the size of the pitch will help us because we pass the ball well. However, I’m conscious that it should help others too who rely on how well their stronger players can run with the ball. With this in mind, part of our build up to the season will be spent working much more on fitness and trying to improve players strength, pace and stamina. If we can get closer to teams physically, the way we play the game might just give us an advantage.

At the moment though our main concern revolves around the recruitment of players. the 12-13 age range is a tricky time with junior footballers as lots of them start to explore new interests and the drop out rate is quite high. So far, having asked parents who’ll be signing up next season I’ve had only 11 positive replies, which basically means we haven’t got a squad yet. Our goalkeeper has decided to drop football, leaving us without anyone to fill what is a really key position, so we’re on the lookout for a new keeper! It promises to be a crucial next few weeks, with the simple fact being if we can’t get enough players then the team will have to fold. I’ve already heard whispers of other teams that are in the same position, so it’s going to be a case of putting out adverts, relying on word of mouth and crossing everything that’s crossable in the hope that we can attract bodies! If not, I’m going to have to find something else to fill my everyday thoughts and Sunday mornings!

The other thing that I need to think about now is sponsorship. Grassroots football clubs are not organisations that are awash with money. But the kids that populate them tend to grow fast. So when it comes to kit, my lads have grown out of what they’ve got and we are in dire need of a new home kit. The last time we got one we could only secure sponsorship to pay for just over half of what we got, meaning that the club had to stump up money to help out. I’d like to avoid that this time round.

That said, schmoozing potential sponsors is not my thing and that is yet another problem. My assistant coach is usually pretty good at that kind of thing though and as well as this, we have parents of some of our players that have tried to get sponsorship in the past. In fact, our last home kit sponsorship was achieved by one of said parents badgering a business owner who drinks in the same pub as him!

If we do get the money then we need to get the kit, which shouldn’t be a problem, but again is something that irks me. Our club committee insist on sticking with the same supplier for all teams and frankly, I don’t rate the supplier. Our home kit for the last two seasons has been plain, dull and unimaginative, so I’m hoping that this year there might be a bit of flexibility.

A couple of years ago I used an online kit designer to come up with some ideas from a different supplier. I then put the idea to the club. You would have thought I’d just arrived at the meeting riding a sea horse while holding hands with a mermaid. Suffice to say, we stuck with our usual way of doing things.

A year later however, we decided that we’d buy a training kit that could double up as an away kit because our home kit clashed with several other teams in our league. We went with a neon yellow and grey number and it blew a few minds. And then, a coach from one of our younger age groups got in touch to find out which kit it was, as he wanted to order it. Gradually more groups did the same and now several of our age groups wear the same snazzy kit that we introduced. So there’s hope for a quiet kit revolution yet!

Overall, it’s been a season of highs and lows and it’s left us with lots to work on. I think I have a team of players that are capable of a great deal more. I think their potential is a lot greater than they realise and happily, I think the penny might have dropped a little with this. I’ll be going into the season with some targets for them, both individually and as a team, but in short I’ll be looking for a much better league finish. This season we finished 7th out of 10 clubs. Next year I’ll be pushing my boys for a top three finish (if we get the players and actually still have a team, that is…) and if results in the final four or five games are anything to go by, we can achieve just that.

We lost to the teams that finished 2nd and 3rd in the league, but were competitive in both games, particularly against the 2nd team. We defeated teams that finished higher than us in those final games too, most notably against the team that won the league. In fact, we were the only team to beat them over the course of the entire season; the only team to take any points at all off them as they won every other game that they played. And it wasn’t just a win; we made them look very ordinary and dominated all but the final five minutes or so. If we can take that performance forward, then we’ll be OK.

So here’s to another year of football with all of the challenges it brings. Let’s just hope that the pandemic isn’t going to cause the chaos that it has for the last two seasons though!

Crosby Academy: Adventures in home schooling.

flat lay composition with empty paper
Photo by bongkarn thanyakij on Pexels.com

Having been teacher for the last twenty years I’ve experienced a lot of challenges in the classroom. From earth-shattering breaking news like the attack on the Twin Towers to teenagers breaking wind that could well have cleared the classroom out for the day. However, this week I’ve been facing up to perhaps my biggest challenge yet. Home-schooling my own kids.

Monday 23rd March 2020 witnessed the birth of a new place of learning as Crosby Academy opened its doors for the very first time. We’re a small school. Tiny, in fact with a cohort of only two pupils and two teachers. We’re also a bit of a through school with students in Year 9 and Year 6. And with school closures meaning that students may not return to their actual place of learning this academic year, it leaves us sat between two stools, so to speak. Our Year 6 boy could well have seen his last Year 6 action, leaving us wondering if we should simply be preparing for, and getting ahead with, his start at high school.

But enough of the boring details. Let’s get to the fun stuff.

Following a non-existent consultation process I installed myself as Executive Principal of the academy. No interviews needed; I am absolutely the man for this job. I have literally no experience of this level of management, but figure that having worked with various SLTs in the past who seemed under-qualified to collect the trolleys in Asda, I’d be alright. That said, I wouldn’t know where to start if I had to start collecting the trolleys in Asda. Especially that bit where they stop the traffic by wheeling about a hundred of them out in a big row. Never mind, I’ll tackle that in my pensionable years.

Our main aim at Crosby Academy is to make learning fun for our kids. That’s a genuine sentence by the way; there is no punchline. From my point of view, it’s going to be a bit of a culture shock for all of us – we’re all out of our comfort zones, so let’s make sure we can cover lots of the skills the kids will need, but try to relax and enjoy ourselves at the same time.

With fun in mind, we start the day by taking part in Joe Wicks’ live YouTube PE lesson – a kind of aerobic workout, but I’m guessing, designed to be little more child friendly. Our Year 9 student opts out, as she does with most exercise these days, but other than that the whole school – staff and students – are ready to workout. We take our places in the ‘gym’ – our front room – and tune in to Joe’s YouTube channel ready to feel the burn, as they no doubt still say in gyms up and down the land, while staring at themselves in big mirrors and thinking about muscles like abs, quads and glutes.

At 9am Joe is in position, all skin tight top and a pair of shorts. He is enthusiasm personified, which is normally a bit much for me to take, but I remember our school motto, “It’s like getting an education on the Vengabus.” and put it out of mind. I make a mental note to start writing a school song though. My life is nothing without a futile exercise that will amuse me and me only.

We start with a five minute warm up. Some stretches and stuff to get the heart rate going. I am so busy focusing on bending my body into unnatural positions that I forget the 5 minute part and when Joe tells us we’ve finished our warm up I let out an audible “Whaaaat?”, having already worn myself out. But there’s no time to feel sorry for myself because after wittering on about ‘shout outs’ for a minute or so Joe launches into the first proper exercise. I think I might have to employ a new PE teacher; one that just does football and doesn’t ask for shout outs and then do things like tell the whole of New York, ‘We love you, New York’. We don’t. I mean, you’re alright but there are loads of things I love before you, like chocolate, Sam and Cat on Nickalodeon, Army and Navy sweets and almost everything from Greggs.

Despite my post warm-up fear, the next 20 plus minutes is actually really enjoyable. We speed through various exercises, including things called Jumping Jacks and Climbing The Mountain and there is even more talk of shout outs. At one point I find myself staring in some kind of fascination at Mr Wicks, whose abs are clearly visible even though he’s wearing a t-shirt. It’s like his clothes have been sprayed on and sculpted to him. Meanwhile I’m wearing the kind of loose top I wear for running that should hide a multitude of sins and still my little pot belly is shamefully visible. No matter – I still manage to stumble through the exercises. We seem to do more squats than is humanly necessary and at one point I fear that we should have set up a safe word beforehand, but I get through it. We all do. It feels like the toughest PE lesson ever, but as Executive Principal, I feel like I’ve sent an important message to my staff and pupils. It may well be that lycra and strenuous exercise is to be avoided by a man of my age, but I’ve sent an important message all the same. I might have to go and have a lie down, just while I figure out what it actually is though, you understand.

I decide that we’ll keep Mr Wicks at Crosby Academy. In my head we have the conversation about it. I tell him, “Mr Wicks *then I pause for dramatic effect, because I’m a man of great power now* we’d be more than happy to keep you here at the academy” and he looks at me a little bit in awe but all the while really chuffed, and says something like “wicked” and then gets carried away and calls me “geezer” before apologising. I tell him it’s OK and laugh while I ask the kids and the wife to ‘give a shout out to r Wicks!’. I think we’re having a bromance.

After our PE lesson, as we’re yet to go into lockdown, we go out for a walk, just as a sort of warm down. It’s a beautiful early Spring day, we’re keeping a safe distance from the very few people we encounter and we’re trying to keep the fun in education, remember?

Once we return to school Year 9 settle down to do some Art, while I take Year6/7 up to the Key Stage Fluid Suite (Dylan’s bedroom) to do some English. My daughter is studying for GCSE Art and with a lot of encouragement from us is beginning to believe in herself. She’s in fact very talented and is nowadays happy to just sit and draw or paint. Me and the boy leave her to it.

We’re doing some creative writing so we incorporate some of the ideas from Dylan’s school such as starting with an IQ, which it turns out is some sort of question where neither of us understands what the ‘I’ stands for. This is a bit of a worry given that my Year6/7 student will have had a lot of experience of using them, but I tell myself, it’s OK and that ‘school’s out’, so none of it matters. Learning on the Vengabus, remember? We work out however, that it seems to be a kind of learning purpose, but in the form of a question, so we muddle on through and settle on ‘Can I use interesting vocabulary in my description?’ Secretly I’m thinking more along the lines of ‘Can I get through this next hour without throwing his books out of the window?’ but I don’t let on.

I try to bring a bit of a flavour of high school to his work by making sure his writing is planned and making him stick to a timeframe. I also mark it soon after he’s finished and give him areas for improvement; what we call EBI (Even Better If) points. I’m not sure he likes it, but I try to be as positive as possible, given the fact that he’s my son and of course the only student in the year group. I’m thrilled to see that his first effort is pretty damn good. He’s a little bit shocked to discover that he’ll be re-drafting his work in tomorrow’s lesson though!

Following our English and Art lessons it’s break time and I decide to head out on duty. Our Year 9 student is out in the yard (our garden) so I decide to go and check on her. I think it’s important as the most important person in the academy, who it all revolves around (it’s all about me, not the bloody students), that I get out and mix. However, when I look for her she’s not there and I’m sent into a momentary spin. I’ve lost an entire year group!

It turns out that she’s channeling her inner Goth and avoiding the outdoors because it’s sunny and therefore not the kind of place for vampires. She’s in the room we use for messy play. Actually, let’s just correct that – she’s in her own really messy room doing her best impression of a tramp, in amongst all of her worldly possessions strewn about a 9ft by 9ft box room. She’s OK though and her mostly independent learning seems to be going well.

I decide to do what good leaders do next. I go and check up on my staff. I’ve done plenty of learning walks in actual schools, but not one in a home-school environment. That said, my home-school career is only hours old. However, I feel, given her inexperience as an educator, it’s time to pop into one of my wife’s lessons! Maybe I can pass on a few tips? I’m sure she’d appreciate that…

Obviously, she’s thrilled to see me and spends almost all of the time that I’m in the room with a big smile on her face. Or is that gritted teeth? There’s no pressure here at Crosby Academy though. I simply ask her about 14 different questions about what she’s doing and then, when I feel that I’ve had the answers that I consider the correct ones, I leave.

I don’t do any of this, obviously. But I do pop my head around the door to see how things are going. I haven’t heard any shouting from upstairs so it seems to have been going well and when I enquire that seems to be the case. It’s been a good first day and we bring things to an end rather early in order to give everyone a break and a bit of space away from each other.

For the rest of the week I’m largely responsible for all of the learning at Crosby Academy. Our Maths and Science teacher, my wife, who gets to specialise in all the boring subjects in one go, has to be back at work. In fact, given what is now a lockdown situation, she chooses to work from home, utilising one of our learning hubs here at the academy to make for a home office. Or rather, after a day trying to work at the dining room table with our daughter, she gives up and confines herself to our bedroom for the remainder of the week.

This leaves me as the sole teacher and as a result I give myself a promotion, following a meeting of the school governor (yes that is singular and the meeting amounts to me having a bit of a think). My title is now Admiral of Education – grandiose you may feel, but I’m the fella steering the learning liner, remember. It’s only me that’s responsible for the course of this particular pedagogical pedalo. And thus, admiral seems an extremely fitting title.

For the rest of the week we cover quite a bit of ground. We’re disciplined enough to make sure that we have school every day. Every morning at least two of us join in with Mr Wicks’s PE lesson and every morning I feel like he might be trying to do me an injury. No matter, I manage to stay with it for the week and although it’s difficult, it’s a huge amount of fun too. It feels like a nice way to spend doing some father son bonding time with the added perk that by the time it’s all finished and we’re back to some sense of normality I’ll have buns of steel as well as the possibility of actual abs, rather than just a little pot belly made out of crisps, chocolate and beer.

Our Year 9 student becomes largely autonomous, although I make sure that I check in on her progress regularly. So regularly in fact, that I’m positively wowed by the amount of education one can get from one’s phone these days…

My son – our Year 6 maybe 7 student – needs supervision, however. And so as well as daily Maths and English lessons, we spend time learning Spanish, learning about lines of longtitude in Geography, tuning in to a brilliant live lesson from a World War II bunker in History and then doing some Art outside in the sunshine. My friend and Art teacher Helen has set up a self-isolation Facebook group designed to get people doing art every day and so after our Art lesson I post both of our drawings in the group. It’s to my eternal disappointment that Dylan’s two cartoons from the Dogman books get infinitely more likes than my drawing of a flower from our camellia bush. It seems everyone really is a critic!

As the week ends I realise that despite the sense of dread that I’d had about home-schooling, I’ve really enjoyed myself. We’ve managed to have fun – I’ve only had the one tantrum after all – and I’d like to think that both kids have kept up their learning. Friends on social media have helped with ideas and through sharing things like the World War II bunker lesson and the Facebook drawing group and in the end it’s been a success. So much of a success in fact that I’m considering knocking on my neighbour’s door over the weekend to ask them if they’d like to join in with Crosby Academy. I could have a multi academy trust on my hands by the start of April.

Does anybody know what the rank above admiral is?

 

 

 

 

Legs like jelly and lungs fit to burst, but crossing the line with a smile – my experience at Parkrun.

As some of you know, for the last 18 months or so I’ve been on a bit of a quest to stay fit. And for those of you who didn’t know, well…how to put this? For the last 18 months or so I’ve been on a bit of a quest to stay fit. So now you know.

The quest came as part of a reaction to a health scare. In April 2018 I was admitted to hospital with quite severe heart palpitations and about a month later had to have an operation called a boob job. Just kidding, it was a cardiac ablation. Basically they destroy the bit of your heart that’s causing the problem by inserting catheters through your blood vessels and blasting the affected area with radio waves to create scar tissue that doesn’t conduct the electricity that is reaching your heart and causing the problem. Basically.

My reaction to this was to be a little bit frightened. On the whole it wasn’t a pleasant experience and it left me feeling quite worried that I might be a lot closer to death than I’d ever imagined. And so, as part of a lifestyle change, I began to exercise again. I began to run. Because, baby, we were born to run.

For the most part this has been a very solitary activity. Apart from a few early runs when my son would come with me, I’ve been out running alone. Having discovered X-Box though, my son has decided that he no longer cares about his dad’s health and thus I have no running partner and a son that couldn’t care less whether I live or die. And of course, I jest there. Dark humour and all that. Of course he cares. The whole family does. I mean, who would put the bins out if I keeled over?

I don’t mind the solitary side of things. I like running alone. It leaves me free with my thoughts – I don’t tend to listen to music – and since the operation I feel like I’ve become mentally a lot stronger too. So while as a young man I’d readily give in to the little voice telling me to stop, nowadays I’m made of sterner stuff. I’ll battle on when I feel tired and I’ll run through the periods when I feel like I might be sick. That solitary half hour or hour is more like a break – no one to engage with, nothing to bother me, except tired legs and lungs.

Recently though, my daughter had begun her bronze award in the Duke of Edinburgh scheme. As part of it she has to volunteer for anything up to six months and so, when she was struggling to find somewhere to do this, my wife intervened and contacted the people at our local Parkrun. The organiser, Michelle, couldn’t have been more helpful and agreed instantly to take on my daughter and her friend as volunteers. And this is how I found myself on a narrow lane in Oakwell Hall, West Yorkshire stood in a crowd of people buzzing with anticipation.

In truth Parkrun has been on my radar for ages. It appealed as soon as I read about it, but there was always something stopping me doing it. There are several local to me so I wasn’t short of options and wouldn’t have to travel too far, but that final push to take myself along had always eluded me. But then, with my daughter needing a lift to Oakwell Hall and there being nothing to do but hang around when I got there, I decided to take the plunge. And so I found myself standing on the aforementioned narrow lane in a country park in West Yorkshire wondering what I’d let myself in for one Saturday morning in late August.

It had been a couple of weeks since I’d last run and so my head was full of doubts. And there seemed to be hundreds of others here too. Most were fellow runners – I optimistically classed myself as a runner, despite my feeling that the last bit of today’s run might well be crawled – and then there were quite a few others either volunteering in some capacity or spectating. For a few minutes I was convinced I’d made a big mistake and wondered if anyone would notice if I simply wandered off in the direction of my car. But then I looked over to where a group of volunteers were standing, getting ready to head off to their marshalling points, and spotted my daughter and her best friend. Both were here as part of their Duke of Edinburgh bronze award…I couldn’t let them down. I couldn’t face explaining why I’d done the wrong kind of runner. So I pushed the positives.

One of the moments that I was dreading was the guidance for new Parkrunners. I’d got it into my head that I was sure to be the only one and that while someone lectured me about running, a whole load of Saucony clad young folk would be standing around eyeing me up and tutting at my inexperience.

Unsurprisingly, it was nothing of the sort. Firstly, there were around a dozen of us new to the run, so I could hide in company. Secondly, the talk was enthusiastic and good humoured; it was clear that everyone wanted us to do well. And finally, a quick glance around told me that there was no difference between us newbies and the veterans that we stood amongst – everyone was just here for a run.

Following the briefing of the virgins, I decided to head down to the start of the run. Still suffering from nerves and a little bit of self-doubt I headed towards the back of the ever growing group. Looking around it didn’t take long for me to notice that everyone seemed happy. There was a selection of ages and body shapes, the weather was good and it was the very start of the weekend. Amazingly, it didn’t take long for this Parkrun ‘vibe’ to take hold of me. While normally I’m cynical and quite resistant to smiling, I found myself gradually relaxing. Positive thoughts seeped into my mind and it wasn’t long before I was telling myself that not only could I actually do this, but that I could enjoy it and perhaps even do it well. Such is the atmosphere at Parkrun.

It wasn’t long before I was joined in the starting area by a lot more runners. A check of my watch revealed that it was a few minutes to the 9am start time. And then, at the head of the pack, sans megaphone, appeared race director Michelle. At first I struggled to hear precisely what she was saying, such was the noise of dogs around me. Actual dogs…that’s not me turning all pirate on you. But occasionally people would clap, so dutiful as ever, I clapped along, not sure whether I was feeling positive or not. Slowly but surely though I got to hear what she was saying and basically Michelle was being a one-woman motivational/relaxation tool. She also seemed to be a dog whisperer too, as the more she shouted, the quieter the hounds became. By the time she began asking whether there were any tourists or first timers I was relaxed and ready to run. I secretly hoped that the dogs had fell asleep – surely even I couldn’t finish last if the saying about letting sleeping dogs lie was going to be adhered to. And then, before I knew it, we were off!

At the back of the field we shuffle awkwardly forward, occasionally breaking into a jog, before slowing again as the road narrows. Luckily, by the time I pass my daughter for the first time, I’m doing something that resembles running. Despite the uphill start and the fact that the lane narrows to a path within a couple of hundred yards, I’m feeling fine as we reach the first turn onto a track I know well from family walks around the park.

For a short while I jog steadily along, sort of stuck behind people, but also running on auto-pilot and not particularly interested in upping the pace. And then, as the track widens enough a couple of runners pass me and it snaps me into some sort of action. I kick on a few times and get round some of the runners around me, picking up a comfortable pace and stretching my legs a little.

Soon, we hit the first downhill stretch and I negotiate this fairly carefully, aware of the fact that if anyone’s going to take a tumble, it’s going to be me. Then the track narrows again and the pace is back to a crawl, but I’m feeling relatively good.

As the track opens out we face a short, energy sapping uphill climb over some cobbles – well we are in deepest Yorkshire – through the car park and we’re about halfway around our first lap of the park. I’m suddenly aware of clapping and some shouting and when I look up I’m greeted by the sight of several high-viz jackets adorning a group of volunteers who proceed to do a wonderful job of congratulating everyone that passes on their progress, however slow we may be, or in my case how much our face resembles a plum tomato. And this is one of the many great things about Parkrun; everyone is so supportive and positive. At various points around the 5 kilometre course they stand and congratulate you or tell you what a great job you’re doing. And in the spirit of the whole thing you find yourself thanking them right back. As a veteran of 6 Great North Runs I know that I react well to such encouragement and crowd participation and although it’s on a much smaller scale here, it’s no less welcome.

We crest the hill and across the road from me is my daughter and her friend. Again, despite my embarrassment, it’s a boost and I lengthen my stride ahead of another downhill section. Another bit of a kick and I’m feeling pretty good – *coughs* for a man of my age – and I manage to pass a few people on the way down the hill. Near the bottom though comes a bit of a test. Oakwell Hall features a path that zig-zags down towards the stream at quite a severe angle, so you’re going back on yourself and taking some rather sharp turns. My legs are tiring and by the time I’ve hit the bottom of the hill and crossed the bridge over the stream I’m blowing a bit. In what I’m rapidly finding out is true Parkrun fashion there’s another volunteer twist as a female marshall stands shouting encouragement while shaking maracas at us at the bottom of the hill. Strange, but brilliant and the kind of thing that takes my mind of my aching body and makes me laugh in spite of it.

But there’s no let-up as we hit another steep uphill section. I make the mistake of running up the stairs and have legs like jelly at the top. Within a few minutes there’s another steep uphill climb, but by the top we’re heading towards halfway and as the trail opens up I realise there’s more people to be passed. By the time we hit halfway I feel a strange mix of being full of running and absolutely knackered! I’m feeling OK though and more to the point, I’m enjoying myself. There are more marshalls encouraging us, more downhill sections and, sadly, more uphills too, but before I know it I’m heading along the final few hundred metres of trail and powering -sort of – for the finish line. I have no idea whatsoever of how I’m doing or of what my time might be, but I’m enjoying myself and I know that I need to open up my stride and try to have a big finish. Just before we turn right into the final straight I’m passed by a couple of runners. I tell myself that it’s OK, they’re both a lot younger than me, but I try to respond and catch them. There’s nothing left in my legs though. Still, I spot a woman in colourful leggings ahead of me running with a dog. I’ve enjoyed my run, but I can’t get beaten by a lass in fancy dress. I summon up one last kick and seem to be catching her up, but it’s too late. As much as my mind wants to sprint, my legs have had enough. I’m making no more ground up today, so with my time in mind, I keep up my middle-aged sprint and try to pass the finish line with a tiny bit of style and probably slightly less dignity.

Whatever I might look like though, I’m done. And I think I’ve done OK. Parkrun may not be a marathon or any kind of huge test, but it’s a lot of fun. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my morning. Everyone’s been welcoming and the runners come in all shapes, sizes and approaches, which is comforting when your legs are like pipe cleaners and as your body heats up it all goes to your face, making sure you look like the aforementioned tomato after about 500 yards.

It’s not really a race, but you’ll be informed of your position in the field and your time, so there’s always going to be that competitive edge. As it turns out, shortly after I get home I’m informed by email that I managed to drag myself around the 5km course in just over 31 minutes. It’s an automatic personal best too, due to the fact that I’ve never done Parkrun before!

As a result of the run I have to give myself a couple of weeks rest as my back reacts badly to the trail running. However, within a fortnight I’m back and this time I manage to take almost a minute off my personal best. Then, a week later when I’ve clearly caught the Parkrun bug I manage to get round in 29 minutes and 3 seconds. My third Parkrun and my third personal best!

I hope that I can go on and complete many more. For now I’ll stick to Oakwell Hall, but I have it in my mind to sample the atmosphere at others as well, because that amount of encouragement is strangely addictive. And maybe that’s the thing about Parkrun – a non-threatening, friendly, positive place where everyone – even your competitors – want you to do well. Who could ask for anything more while dragging their middle aged, lycra-clad body round a park?

Grassroots Football: The Gala Experience

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On Sunday 7th July I took my Under 11s football team to compete in the Wakefield Owls Soccer6 Gala, a tournament for various age groups across Yorkshire. This is our story. From previous experience I know that galas are a frenzied affair. There are teams as far as the eye can see, accompanied by parents, close relatives and coaches. And as an actual coach you’re attempting to be in several places at once, coaching your team, instructing subs, keeping parents informed, finding out what’s going on and where you’ll be off to next, as well as trying to stay composed and focused. This may well be what they term ‘mini soccer’ but at a gala it’s like the circus have come to town…and brought the auditions for Britain’s Got Talent with them. And on closer inspection, some of the under 7s do have more than a passing similarity to both Ant and Dec. Gala day begins early in our house as we need to be there to register our team by 9am. Having attended a family wedding the day before, this getting up early lark is not going to be easy. I struggle through a shower and make breakfast for the kids, while intermittently attempting to sort out my coach’s bag and footballs. We load up only the essentials today – first aid kit, bibs, etc and just the 5 footballs so that we can get some practice in without spraying dozens of footballs all over other people’s pitches; after all this isn’t the usual herding cats scenario that we know as training on a Thursday night, with 17 kids and footballs being relocated from anywhere within a half-mile radius. It’s strange how none of our boys can spot the bright yellow football that they themselves have just kicked onto a neighbouring pitch or a patch of grass 50 yards away on a Thursday! Away games can be chaotic in terms of travel. Despite living in Leeds for over 20 years I’m still not that well versed on its geography or that of the surrounding areas and so we’re often screeching up to pitches later than the majority of parents. But today, we’re early, negotiating the journey with no wrong turnings and easily managing to get parked. It helps that we’ve played here several times before, of course. I meet up with my assistant coach and his son. It’s not even 9 ‘o clock and we already have two players present, which is a relief. Just the other six to tick off now. We wander down to the clubhouse and meet some other parents and players before registering the team’s attendance. One of the mum’s makes herself the least popular adult with our squad by producing suncream from her bag and liberally lathering it all over the necks and faces of the boys! There’s an outcry that can probably be heard back in Leeds, but it’s better to be safe than sorry though, right? At this point there’s always a shared sense of determination and optimism. Football at this level is meant to be fun, but in truth, none of us have turned up today to lose while maintaining inane grins all over our faces. We all want to win and nobody is looking to be humiliated. It’s a nice, positive atmosphere to be part of and it’s even nicer to see the undisguised excitement of our boys. Before we know it, we have a list of fixtures and the excitement is ramped up a notch. There’s a managers’ meeting where rules and expected conduct are explained and in almost the blink of an eye we’re on our pitch, sitting the boys down to explain tactics, rules and teams. We’re feeling quietly confident; we have a good set of boys, all of whom can be trusted with the ball and all of whom have shown that they can hold their own against decent opposition. We’ve played three of the teams in our group before and again, never looked out of place. We do still have one nagging problem though. Our goalkeeper still hasn’t turned up. I’ve checked my phone and the text was sent on the previous Thursday, but not replied to. It’s looking increasingly like we’ll be re-arranging the team and start with one of keener outfield players in nets. It’s not ideal, but we’ll have to cope. And then, just as I call my new ‘goalie’ over to give him the shirt, I take one last hopeful look at the entrance to the gala. It’s a miracle. My goalkeeper is jogging somewhat dishevelled and shame-faced over to us! It turns out that they’d lost their door keys, but they’re here now and we can all settle down! Games are one half of ten minutes. It’s only six-a-side and there are no offsides. It’s generally quite hectic, end-to-end stuff and as a coach it can be quite stressful to watch. Usually, if there’s a mistake you’ve got plenty of time to try and put it right, but a game of just ten minutes puts the pressure on somewhat and you have to guard against casual mistakes as you might not have time to put them right. Our first game is against Allerton Bywater, a team we’ve never played. It’s quite an even match, but at the end I feel like we should have won it. Our boys look a little taken aback by the pace and despite warnings they’re fussing over corners and throw-ins, rather than just getting on with it. We snatch at a couple of chances, but defend well at the other end. It ends in a frustrating nil nil draw. We’ve got a point on board, but it could easily have been three. With five teams in a group we get to take a rest next as the other four play each other. It’s a baking hot day, so in one way the rest is welcomed, but it also means that we face three games back to back after this. With that in mind we’ll need to rotate. The rest does give a coach a little bit of time to think though. So I spend the next 5 or so minutes going round my players trying to stay positive, but also reiterating a few key messages and instructions. With that done and dusted there’s time to take in a little bit of the gala. It’s an amazing sight if you love your football. We’re surrounded by games going on and the sound of encouragement fills the air. A glance across at the under 7s brings a flash of nostalgia too and I think back to my son’s first games where he wore a kit that was more like a tent and he barely looked able to run, let alone dribble with or pass a football. The excitement across the site is tangible and it would be easy to get carried away and just wander off to take in some games, but before I know it we’re back to business and our next game. We play a Beeston side from the league above us next and again it’s close. I’ve brought our two subs in to start, the idea being to give everybody a rest, while also making sure that everyone gets a decent amount of football. We lose the game 1-0 though and again have enough chances to at least get a draw. But it’s not to be and if we’re going to qualify for the main trophy we’ll have to win at least one of our last two games. The change in format doesn’t seem to be helping our boys. The pitch is much smaller than we’re used to and the length of game much shorter. And yet, every time we get a corner we’re over-hitting them, lofting them into the air and out of play on the other side of the field. Similarly, when we get a throw in we’re fussing about who should take it or taking an age trying to be ever so precise about where it goes, rather than just getting it taken quickly, down the line as instructed. We’re making mistakes and piling pressure on to ourselves. And we’re yet to score a goal. This changes in our next game. We’re playing one of the host’s teams – Wakefield Owls – and it feels like we are dominant. It takes us a while – which is the very definition of things being relative with a ten minute match – but eventually we get our goal. It’s a scrappy affair, with the ball bundled in at the back post, but they all count. It feels like we can go on and win from this position, but within a minute we’ve presented our opposition with the ball and they’ve scored. Suddenly the tables turn and we’re under pressure, but we ride this out and in the end (again!) we’re unlucky not to grab a winner after we hit the bar once and slam a few chances narrowly wide. It feels like we’ve finally gotten into our stride though. The games seem to be kicking off at different times and so we’re left waiting for our final group opposition, which gives me a bit of time to go around the lads once more, passing on instructions. We eventually sit them down and give them the big pep talk. That’s pep as in building the boys up and trying to make them feel more positive, rather than being any kind of tactical genius with a Catalonian accent. This is a big game for our boys. Exactly twelve months ago to the day we played the exact same opposition at the exact same stage of the gala and lost in a bit of a bad tempered game. It meant that we didn’t qualify for the latter stages of the trophy and a few of the boys ended up in tears. As it turned out we went on to win the less prestigious cup that the teams in the bottom end of each group played for, so the tears soon turned into smiles. But we really want to win now! It seems churlish and perhaps a little immature to talk about revenge, but then again, if we’ve not come to win football matches then why have we even turned up? The game is close, but frustratingly – again – we have more of the ball. We’re fairly dominant, but again we just can’t seem to score. We force the keeper into saves and we hit the bar, but that ball just will not go into the net. I’m struggling to retain any sense of professionalism by this point and each time we go close I’m either sailing through the air ready to celebrate or dropping on to my haunches like some kind of over emotional teenager. But that’s football. I don’t go along with the theory that we’re better coaches because we stand there saying very little. And I don’t think that it’s a case of the more vocal the better. We just all have different styles. I can’t help but get involved. I’m not negative, but I’m not particularly quiet either. And at this point on Sunday I was struggling to maintain control! The game ends in a 0-0 draw. This almost certainly means that we will drop into the lower end of the knock out matches. After a few minutes of standing around I head down to the clubhouse to try and get some more information. This is a well organised gala, so it’s easy to get our finishing position confirmed. And it’s exactly what we thought. However, some games are running over and so we’re faced with an anxious wait to see who our semi final opponents will be. I say ‘anxious’ but it’s of no interest whatsoever to my team who proceed to spend the next ten minutes or so practising elaborate corner kick routines. They even devise a celebration to fit the corners! That’s the brilliant thing about football at this level. Yes, it matters, but the emphasis has to be on enjoyment and my boys are definitely enjoying themselves. It’s getting the balance right, again, that’s key. Meanwhile, I’m having no fun whatsoever, sweating over the team for the semi final and fretting about how we’ll react to the pressure! We play another side from Beeston in our semi final and in the end we make too many mistakes. We lose 2-1, despite some frantic attacking once we’d gone two goals down. We pepper the opposition goal and manage to scramble one in but we run out of time. And that’s it. We’re out. We encourage our boys to shake hands, but for some it’s a step too far. There are tears and sullen faces everywhere I look. We try to get around each player, staying positive, congratulating them on all of the good things that they’ve done today and reminding them that they should feel proud. But it’s to no avail. These boys care deeply about this team and I have to admit that this makes me feel even more proud of them. As I walk around the pitch I hear a distinctive sound. It’s the sound of one very upset little boy and it’s a sound I’m only too familiar with. Like many coaches, I coach my son and for now he’s devastated. Despite the fact that he scored our goal he’s blaming himself as he misplaced a pass in the lead up to Beeston’s second goal. So the coach has to be put to one side and dad takes over. I want to scoop him up like I did when he was much smaller, but I know that he’ll be mortified. So, I crouch down next to him, give him a big hug and talk to him, telling him that it’s not his fault, that it’s no one’s fault and reminding him what we all learn in the end; this is football. We decide to watch the final as a team at the boys’ request and again, like we’ve witnessed all day, it’s a brilliant competitive match. Again there are tears at the end, but thankfully not from our boys who by now, my son included, have moved on. Afterwards we make our way down to the clubhouse where our team are presented with medals; a lovely touch from the organisers. By now, all of my boys are smiling and have their team photo taken holding medals aloft proudly, like they’d won the tournament after all. And there’s that lesson again; this is football. One minute your as low as you imagine you can be and then next you’re flying high. Whatever you feel, it’s an utterly brilliant game to be part of. Thanks to Karen and all at Wakefield Owls for their hospitality and another fantastic gala. We’ll see you again next year!

The 2018 – 2019 Season – a grassroots football review.

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As a long season in the Under 10s section of the Garforth Junior Football League draws to a close, and every coach’s minds turn to next year and how we step up, I thought it right to have a little look back. A moment of reflection or a review, if you will.

There’s nothing self-important here, by the way. I coach a team of Under 10s and while in my mind they’re a very special bunch of lads, in truth we’re nothing special at all. Not to be disparaging to my boys, but there’ll be hundreds, possibly thousands of teams just like us around the British Isles. The thing is though, these boys and this team have brought me so much joy over the last year that it’s more than worth a few thousand words. And it’s been a hell of a season.

I took over the coaching of the team part way through last season and while I’d like to think I got the boys a lot more organised, we still weren’t winning games. We were undoubtedly more competitive, but we still ended the season with just the single win.

Needless to say, I was desperate to see our fortunes improve this season. We organised some friendlies in June and July and having attracted a few new players, for once not only did we have numbers available, but we were actually improving. We quickly developed a noticeable style of play and identified key players for key positions. And the results were improving too.

Despite the optimism, we started the season with a 2-0 home loss, but it was clear for anyone to see that we’d got better. The team we played, North East Leeds, had dropped down from the division above us, so we took quite a bit from the game and although we didn’t score, we went close.  And not too much short of a year previous we’d conceded 18 goals in a game, so a 2-0 loss here was nothing to be alarmed about!

A week later we travelled to Horsforth for an away fixture against a team who we’d played a few times last season, losing all but one where we’d equalised with 8 seconds to go! I must admit though, even early on in the season, I felt fairly confident. However, I wasn’t expecting quite what happened. We were fantastic that day. The desire to win was evident from the very start and we were passing the ball beautifully. By half-time we were leading 3-1 and ended up winning 4-2; a huge win for us. This was only the second time we’d scored more than 2 goals in a game since I was put in charge! It was only our second win ever! I think we were all a little shocked. This winning thing felt strange, but great!

And so began a four game unbeaten streak. We won the next two and drew the fourth game. Suddenly getting lads to turn up and want to play wasn’t a problem. In fact, by the last game of this particular run we had 6 subs. At times in the previous season we’d turned up with just 6 players! Now we had more than enough players and every last one of them with smiles on their faces. That said, you should try getting 6 subs on a field and giving everyone a decent time!

Next came one of the most disappointing parts of our season though. We lost 4-2 away from home against the team who’d beaten us in the first game of the season, but the worst of it was that we were 4-0 down at half-time having performed really poorly. For some reason the boys looked unfocused and a little overwhelmed. We rallied a bit in the second half, making sure that we were as positive as possible with our half time chat, but nothing would shake the memory of that first half performance. I sulked for the rest of the day and couldn’t stop thinking about it for the rest of the week! It’s funny how, even as a calm, rational adult, such things can affect us.

The next game brought a change of emotions and in many ways summed up what grassroots football at this level is all about. It was another away game and I was tickled to see that our opposition played in black and white stripes, like my beloved Newcastle United. As the teams were warming up though, the opposition coach came over for a quiet word. He explained that his team were having a poor season and had been getting hammered every week. He’d taken over just before the season started when they only had 6 registered players and the whole thing was a bit shambolic. He asked if we’d sub one of our players should we get too far ahead in the game. Knowing how things had been for us the previous season, I quickly agreed.

We won the game 7-1 and were excellent. We were fair, our players encouraged theirs and it was a pleasure to witness. I have to admit I felt guilty though. I felt sorry for their boys. This team were exactly what we had been the season before and I was pleased that, although we won in a one-sided game, we were magnanimous and mature about it. The best part of the whole morning came when our opposition scored. Every spectator, every coach and every player cheered. A lovely moment that got lovelier at the end of the match when all players shook hands. Our opponents left the field with some pride and something positive. Yes, we’d won at a canter, but it had clearly felt good not to be mocked and even better to have scored.

Our next two games continued the pattern we were setting. We played the same team – one league game and one cup – and won both well. Winning the second game also meant that we qualified for the Quarter Final of the cup, something that we wouldn’t have thought possible only months before. In their brilliantly naïve fashion our boys also took this to mean that we could genuinely go on and win the thing, which made me smile but also alerted me to a level of expectation that I’d not really felt before. A cup quarter final would most likely mean playing a team from a league above us and I feared that we could be in for a bit of a thrashing. Waiting for the draw to be made for the next round of games certainly had me tense though! I was relieved when we drew a team that we’d played before. We’d lost to them in the latter part of the previous season, but hadn’t been embarrassed, even though they’d stuck five goals past us. Maybe we did have a chance after all. This childlike optimism was catching!

As is the way with football we were brought crashing back down to Earth in the next few weeks. We lost our next three games and learnt a few lessons along the way. The teams we played were physical and pushed us around quite a bit. And we let it happen. My lads are quite the polite bunch when it comes to their football and so, when teams employed an under 10s version of the dark arts, we didn’t stand a chance. But this made me think. How could we combat such physicality? I didn’t want my team to start pushing people around and I wasn’t about to get the weights out, so how did we fight back, so to speak? I found myself scouring YouTube for tips and eventually stumbled upon some great ideas from Italy that looked like a bit of fun as well. I managed to ally these ideas with one or two of my own and for the next few weeks in training this is what we worked on. I’d recently gained my Level 1 FA Coaches badge and was brimming with ideas.

We’d have the boys pairing up and then working on their balance and their core strength while throwing footballs to each other. One exercise involved balancing on one leg while holding a football before pivoting the whole body forward so that you touched the ground with the ball. Then, keeping their balance, they’d pivot back up and bounce the ball to their partner who’d do the same again. Trust me when I tell you it was hilarious! The amount of our players who simply can’t stand on one leg is unbelievable. It was like watching the world’s worst flock of flamingoes!

Other balance games involved jumping over a line, landing on one foot and holding the pose until told to ‘Go!’ and sprinting five to ten yards. We’d also get them to sit down and balance with their legs out in front of them while holding the ball. The ball was bounced to their partner who’d balance and catch it after a few seconds. The drill would end with the pairs working on shielding the ball from each other, twisting and turning in order to hold their partner off and protect the football. It was amazing how quickly they started to use their new found strength and balance in games and extremely satisfying when we noticed it happening.

And then it was time for our Cup quarter final. Every available parent, sibling and even some grandparents travelled over to Wakefield with us and the excitement was tangible. Even at my age, I was desperate for us to win, desperate for us to put in a performance and compete and as a result I was feeling ridiculously nervous. The boys had worked so hard in training and in every match they played just to get to this point; where they could tell themselves, ‘We’re a good team.’ We warmed up, had a chat about our tactics, focus, work rate and supporting each other and we were ready to go.

The game went reasonably well, but in the end we were narrowly defeated. We fell behind midway through the first half when we didn’t close down and simply allowed our opposition to shoot and score. It’s something we have a tendency to do and probably common at this age. But we’d been the better side up until that point and I couldn’t help but be disappointed. Another sign of our progress though was that the boys didn’t let it get to them (unlike their coach!) and they carried on looking for an equaliser.

Not long before half-time, it arrived and it’s safe to say that the proudest man at the game was me. My son smashed in an equaliser, following up as the goalkeeper parried out a shot.  I’d spent months sitting watching football with him and telling him that every good striker would follow the ball in, and he’d done just that. As he jogged back to his half of the field he looked my way and we both clenched our fists in celebration. It was one of those tiny moments of joy that you get as a coach and a dad, and as such, one of my favourite moments of the season.

We continued to battle on after equalising and for a short while we looked likely to get another goal. However, it wasn’t to be, and in the final few minutes we were first denied a penalty (home refs, eh?) before conceding a goal from a corner. Another followed and that was us done for. There were tears at the end. My boys had genuinely believed that they could win and this had hurt them. But they were quickly reminded that they’d done themselves proud and that this showed how far they’d come in a very short space of time.

We went the next two games unbeaten with solid performances, before a game that had all of the good and bad of grassroots football. We played a team we’d previously lost to and were 5-0 down at half-time. The pitch was heavy, but the light drizzle that greeted the start of the game quickly gave way to heavy snow and for the first time in a long time players were asking to come off. But it wasn’t just the weather. The opposition’s coach was ridiculously loud and quite aggressive and some of the boys commented that they couldn’t concentrate. If intimidating the opposition is your thing at Under 10s level, then get on with it and feel good about yourself, but it’s not for me. We kept the talk brief at half-time accentuating the positives of our team and telling them to win the second half. And they did just that. The game ended – still in snow – 6-3 to the visitors, but we’d made an impression on their overly loud coach and he’d asked us to finish early as the snow got harder and my boys were pressing for another goal. I agreed and we finished the game, but we’d made our point! Once again I was left immensely proud of my boys, even if I was soaked to the skin. We gathered together in the clubhouse afterwards – players, coaches, parents and siblings – and made a massive puddle together!

As the season ticked on we began to play teams from the division above. The FA seem to just thrown in these extra games without explanation. We still had league games to play and even as I write and the season is finished there are teams in our league that we’ve only played once or not at all. I’m sure the task of organising the games is both onerous and thankless, and I’m not criticising anyone, but I can’t fathom out why we don’t seem to play the right amount of games.

Against opposition from a higher league we lost both games. But narrowly and we always gave a good performance. In fact, it felt like we really should have won them, but a combination of factors seemed to get in our way. Most of this was down to missing chances, but there’s one moment I’ll remember for the rest of my days. At 2-1 down, going into the closing seconds of an away game against Division B opponents, our right midfielder found himself in the opposition box with the ball in front of him. As the goalkeeper advanced he pushed it past him and was sent crashing to the turf by a high kick that had more in common with events in the octagon than Wembley. Surely a penalty, right? Wrong.

But this is where things took a turn. A bizarre turn. That football fans reflex prompted me to call out – ‘Ref?’ I simply asked the question – was that a penalty? No aggression, no attitude, not even particularly loud. I think both of us on the touchline asked. So what followed was mildly ludicrous and really quite amusing for me. The ref in question literally jumped up and down and screamed at me – ‘He got to the ball first!’ (he didn’t). I actually found myself asking him to calm down. I pointed out that I was merely asking a question, that there was no aggression and that, as the coach, I simply had to ask the question. He was not amused. But then again, neither were my team of 9 and 10 year olds. My own son was outraged and in tears in defence of his dad – ‘He can’t talk to you like that!’ – but we wisely let it go. We hoped, like the pundits tell us, that these things even themselves out over the season.

This then left our final two games of the season. And if ever I needed an indicator as to how far my boys have come in just over a year it was with these two results. The first game was at home and we were back to a league fixture. We’d played this team a number of times already in both league and cup games and remained unbeaten against them. However, the matches had always been tight. This time was very different. We won 8-1. I was stunned. I was thrilled. But I couldn’t really enjoy it. This had been the type of walloping we’d been given for most of last season and I must admit, I felt sorry for the opposition and their coach.

Don’t get me wrong, it was brilliant to see the lads enjoying themselves. They just controlled the game from start to finish and I was able to rotate players in different positions and give everyone a fair chance. But there were times when the other team just folded. Whatever they tried just either didn’t come off or was snuffed out by our team and it didn’t feel that satisfying after all. I’d watched players, coaches and parents revel in beating us last season and now I was left wondering what possessed them. I actually apologised to the opposition coach at the end of the game and I wasn’t really that sure what for.

Our final game of the season took us back over to Wakefield and as we warmed up I allowed myself the customary glance over at the opposition. They were big, they seemed to be knocking the ball around with confidence. This would be a test. How wrong you can be!

After an even first few minutes we went ahead and never looked back. Again, I was able to give everyone a decent run out and also to rotate players into different positions. We also gave our goalkeeper some outfield time and he promptly scored direct from a free-kick! We won 6-0. Less guilt and sympathy this time however, as opposition players were vocally critical of our ‘physical’ approach when we came off. We weren’t physical. Never are, never have been. I encourage the boys to stay on their feet and not to dive into tackles and we don’t push and shove. Perhaps all the work on our strength had payed off. Or perhaps, after over a year of hard work, we’ve learnt how to pass and move, how to support and encourage and how we never give up.

So there you have it. The trials and tribulations of another season of grassroots football. My first full season in charge and what a season! Next up? A well earned break. I’m exhausted! Then later on in the month we’ll come together for the end of year presentation and celebrate what’s been an amazing campaign.

 

 

 

You say you want a (football) resolution?(With apologies to Lennon & McCartney)

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Graham’s resolutions were coming along slowly, it had to be said.

Football has always played a huge part in my life. It’s an addiction, a love, a nuisance, a hindrance, an obsession. I let it control my emotions and sometimes even my way of life far too much. I really need to grow up! Even so, in the past year or so, as I’ve taken on coaching a team, it’s only really got worse in that aspect. So I decided to do something about it. I decided to make a fresh start and make some resolutions that, if I’ve any sense, I’ll endeavour to stick to. Let’s hope I can find some sense in the coming year then.

So, football-wise, in 2019 I will be mostly doing the following. A little late, I know, but better late than never. Life-in-general wise the resolution stays the same; be as happy as possible…and stay alive!

As a Coach…

Resolution 1 The first thing I’ll try to do more of is to make use of the skills I’ve acquired on my recent Level 1 coaching course. These range from trying to use a whiteboard to get tactics across to encouraging my boys to eat more healthily.

When I started on the coaching course the idea of using a whiteboard to get my point across seemed laughable. However, having used one to talk a group of adults through what was required of them in drills, I can see the benefit. Players learn through seeing how the play will look…it doesn’t matter if I look like a bit of a tool standing at the side of the pitch referring to a whiteboard!

In my head the idea of getting my lads to bring a piece of fruit to every game seems great. However, the idea of that actually coming out of my mouth seems ludicrous. Bashful as I might be though, it’s a change I’d like to make. Maybe it’ll focus players at half time if they’re munching on a banana or a handful of grapes, rather than kicking a stray football around or gazing at the other team listening to their coach! And focused players listen more!

Resolution 2 *Crosses fingers* I will endeavour to rotate my team. The FA preaches this message at junior level. They’ll tell you, without any sense of irony or even a knowing wink, that matches at this level are essentially friendlies. If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard this in the last few months, well, truthfully I’d probably have about £16, but you get the point!

Speak to other coaches however and it seems that the majority are still giving an ever so slightly different message. Coaches want to win. Speak to your players and it’s the same. The kids want to win. It’s fun running coaching sessions and going through the games on a Sunday morning, but coaches, players and spectators will all tell you that they feel better after a win. Even at my age, if we win on a Sunday morning I feel much happier for the rest of the day and I’m unlikely to sit wondering how I could have changed things. I can only imagine for the 9 and 10 year olds that coach, winning feels better too.

So where does that leave rotation? Well, it’s a nice thought and definitely something to work towards. This season, where possible, I’ve started games with my best 7, or at the very least the best 7 available. I’ll sub players off so that everyone gets some time on the pitch, but make no mistake about it, I’m trying to win the game.

A little background might clarify and help with any outrage for anyone reading this and wondering where the modern-day spirit of just taking part went to. Last season my team won 1 game, drew 1 game and lost all of the rest. I think that amounted to around 16 losses. We got more and more competitive as the season wore on, but still kept losing.

Hence, the best 7 starting this season. It’s worked. We’ve won a lot more than we’ve lost and made it to the Quarter Finals of a cup competition. As a result – I hope – it seems that everyone is happy. However, I’d still like to think I could change my team a little more. I’ve experimented at times and we’ve survived. I won’t make wholesale changes, but I think I can manage to continue the tweaks.

One thing I think I’ll steer clear of though is the FA message that we should rotate player positions. For me, and for other coaches I’ve spoken to, it’s clear whether a kid is a defender, midfielder or striker. I’m certainly not going to play a different goalkeeper every week. I won’t change positions purely for the sake of it, but I will try to give everyone a go.

Resolution 3 Confession time. Until about four months ago I hated putting on training sessions for my team. OK, hate is probably too strong a word, but it’s safe to say I didn’t enjoy it at all. I often felt time pressured due to work and family commitments and it was a struggle to think of anything useful to come up with for our Thursday training sessions. Furthermore, the mad scramble to finish work early, pick up my son, provide tea for both kids, get changed, make sure my son has everything he needs for training, packing equipment into the car, going back out and then setting up drills before supervising it all for over an hour was providing me with a lot more stress than I would have liked. It was in danger of becoming an exercise in just filling in time for an hour, rather than doing things that were constructive. In short, I was out of ideas and way too short on time.

And then, over summer I found some time. I spent some of it wisely, thinking through drills, drawing diagrams and scribbling down instructions – building up a small bank of resources to use. Miraculously, training was better received and I was actually enjoying it. But again it wasn’t to last and when work got in the way again, I began to run out of resources. However, gaining my Level 1 badge has helped and now, not only do I have access to more resources, I actually feel like a coach.

Which makes this resolution quite easy. I will do my very best to become more creative and innovative with my coaching. We’ve already experimented a little bit with exercises brought in from athletics and sprint training and, given time, I’m going to explore different areas to see where we can learn from. I’m planning to bring in more stretching and warm downs, but that has to just be a start. Recently we’ve worked on some strength-based stuff, incorporating core strength, balance and an almost yoga type approach. I’ve discovered that you haven’t lived until you’ve witnessed the sight of a group of 9 and 10 year olds working on balance exercises! It’s undeniably much more fun running training sessions when the squad is smiling, so being the natural smiler that I am, we’ll continue to give it a go.

As a fan…

Resolution 1 There can be no doubt about it; as a fan of Newcastle United times have rarely been darker. In fact, in many ways, this is as dark as it’s been. I was born into the era of a man named Lord Westwood, an owner who had an eye patch and a vice-like grip on our finances, both factors that made him seem like some kind of Bond villain. I’ve lived through years of trophyless drudgery under narrow-minded chairmen and a succession of under-achieving managers. Luminaries like Gordon Lee, Jack Charlton, Willie McFaul, Jim Smith, Sam Allardyce, Alan Pardew and John Carver signing average footballers to play cautious, functional football. Or worse still, somehow signing fabulous footballers and then not knowing quite what to do with them. All the while this seems to have been accompanied by an almost constant stream of excuses and an often embarrassing lack of personality.

Despite the years under Keegan and Robson and the relative success that they brought, my 40+ years as a Newcastle fan has been painful, to say the least. I am yet to see my club win a major trophy. And yet, I’ve carried on blindly following.

I idolised the club from an early age, pestering my dad to take me to games. Then, I fell ill and a heart problem was discovered which ultimately led to me spending a lot of my early years in hospitals. After several operations I found myself in the Heart department of Newcastle’s Freeman Hospital being readied for a major operation. What I really remember though is being surrounded by cards and gifts from family and friends; after all I was only 6! One such gift came via one of many pretend aunties and uncles (if you’re a child of the 70s and 80s, you’ll understand such extended family). ‘Auntie’ Sally and ‘Uncle’ Roy had written to the club to tell them all about me and incredibly the club wrote back and arranged two free season tickets for the following season when I’d be fit and ready again! And so began a life-long love affair that unfortunately would often leave me feeling cheated.

And then, eleven years ago we were bought by a billionaire and initially things looked like we were about to go all Manchester City flavoured. But then we learnt the truth about Mike Ashley. Or rather we learnt that Mike Ashley tells lies. Without going into too much detail (I sense another blog), Ashley has overseen a shambles for the last 11 years, refusing investment, ambition and creativity. We’ve sold star player after star player and replaced them with bargain basement bores. Dissenting voices have been cut dead and fan dissatisfaction ignored.

In short, I gave up my season ticket years ago. This was partly down to having children, but partly down to the future I foresaw for my club. Matches bored me and I resented the drive to and from Newcastle. Ashley promised much, but gave very little and when Keegan walked for the second time, so did I. I continued to watch games on TV, but visits to the stadium were more and more rare.

Now, with a third recent relegation looking more likely and the chances of Rafa Benitez staying getting slimmer by the day, I think I’m done. Even blind loyalty has to end somewhere. I know that my resolve will be tested, but I can’t take a great deal more disappointment. The penny-pinching, the image of the club being dragged through the mud, the lack of investment in players, training facilities and even the stadium; enough’s enough. My first NUFC related resolution has to be to say ‘If Rafa goes, I go.’ This will break my heart, but I have to face the reality that what I’m presented with at the moment is not my club. It’s a façade for a budget sports shop under the guidance of a man who couldn’t care less about the club, the people or the region. And I can’t support that.

Football is no longer the same sport that I fell in love with. The terraces I ‘grew up’ on are no more and the grounds have a sanitized, one-size-fits-all feel. There is an undoubted disconnect between fans and players with players now earning untold millions per year and relying on media training to get them through any interaction encountered. Fans have changed too. I can stomach all of this, but I can no longer ignore the blatant disregard for my club that is shown not only by the owner, but by a certain bitter section of the media too. At least in the short-term, I want out.

Resolution 2 Write a blog. I’ve invested a great deal in a football club over the years and I’d like to share at least some of my feelings for and about that club. Newcastle United has given me some of my greatest highs and lowest lows. There’s more than one story to be told.

Whether you follow football or not I promise there’ll be something in there for you.

Resolution 3 Find something to fill a Newcastle United sized gap. Quite close to Elland Road there is a structure that has caused me mild excitement for a number of years now. They’re building an ice-rink! I say building, but it’s been very much an on-off affair. However, recently there have been signs of life and the building work has clearly resumed.

Now, before anyone thinks I’m going to fill my NUFC void by going ice-skating, think again. The idea of attempting to stay upright on a veritable knife-edge is simply not me. I’ll walk, I’ll run, I’ll shuffle…I won’t skate.

My hope is that Leeds is about to get an ice hockey team – I think I read something somewhere, a while ago. It’s a sport I have a bit of an interest in having watched matches over the years, most notably while on visits to Toronto and Vancouver some years ago during the Stanley Cup play-offs. The sport is huge, the following passionate and the action non-stop. And if Leeds does get a team, I assume they’ll start off at the bottom of the pile, won’t be successful and maybe without a great deal of idea of what they’re doing. I mean, how much more like Newcastle United could I want? Clearly, I’m hell-bent on replacing one kind of misery with another! However, it might be just the kind of thing I need to make the break.

Like any resolutions these ones are only any use if I keep them. And it’s not something I’ve been much good at in the past. However, maybe 2019’s the year of the football resolution! Let’s hope so.

 

 

‘I’m knackered during the warm-up!’ – the trials of an aspiring coach.

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As a qualified coach, I know how to keep things simple for the Under 10s! Not quite sure I’ve mastered drawing though…

For the whole of December I spent my Saturdays and some of my evenings working towards my Level 1 FA coaching badge. It wasn’t something I actually wanted to do, but after a few gentle shoves from my club, I found myself heading for Huddersfield early on the first day in December. This would be the start of four consecutive Saturdays spent slogging through mornings of various classroom based theory and afternoons of practical sessions. But it would be worth it, right?

I actually qualified as both a Level 1 coach and a referee around twenty years ago as part of my teaching qualification, so, I must admit I felt a little bit put out at the insistence that I do it all again. That said, I suppose it’s obvious that such an old qualification should be considered no use after such a long time and so perhaps, with my team and my club in mind, I should be grateful for the chance to become qualified once more. But, at just after 9am on a Saturday, approaching the place where I’ll be put through my paces, I’m not feeling very grateful at all. Today will last from 9.30 until 5.30 after all – and that’s after having done a week at work. Could it be that I’m just too old for this kind of caper nowadays?

For anyone who doesn’t know, I’ve been coaching one of the Under 10s teams at our local football club for the past year now. I went along as a dad watching his son and ended up being the coach; a common tale from what I can gather. However, given the club’s status as a holder of the FA’s Charter Standard, I’ve been made to get my qualification, despite my misgivings. And I must admit, despite my grumbling, there was a part of me that was actually looking forward to it. I’ve loved football for pretty much my whole life and so the chance to spend even more time indulging myself in it does have a bit of an appeal. And then of course there’s being a bloke and having an ego. I can spend afternoons fluking the odd bit of skill, scoring a few goals and generally kidding myself that I’ve still got it, whatever ‘it’ might have been.

On the first week I checked into the reception of the venue to be greeted by around 15 other reticent faces. Barely anyone looked like they could really be bothered. It wasn’t long however, before we were being ushered out of the reception back out into the cold and pointed in the direction of a hut in the far corner of the complex. This would be our classroom, the magic building where all of us would become the next Klopp, Benitez or in the case of the locals, Wagner. That’s David Wagner, the Huddersfield Town coach, not the pervy looking long-haired Brazilian fella from the X-Factor of years gone by.

Inside the hut we’re welcomed by Norman, an FA coach who will be our mentor and coaching guru for the next month or so. He’s smiley and friendly and seems to know his stuff. And he really gets on our good side by telling us we’ll be running through our practicals on the indoor pitch because it’s bitterly cold outside and he doesn’t fancy standing around in the cold for a few hours! I think I’m going to warm to him, if you’ll pardon the pun.

We spend the next few hours discussing things like the qualities of a good coach, how we treat our players and the FA DNA, which is the blueprint for how the English FA want the game to be approached and the same path that is followed by all coaches, right the way through to Mr Southgate at the top.  Our discussions are somewhat hamstrung though, as we battle to get a word in edgeways. We happen to have a ready made expert on the course. You know the kind – no actual qualifications, but more than willing to share his vast experience with us, question the bloke leading the course and ask questions that have just been answered, because of course, he wasn’t listening. He’ll be like this for the next four weeks. Has he mentioned that he coaches 3 teams? Just a bit. Has he told us about the gala that his team entered and won every game? Only a few times. Are we bored of hearing him talk and would we all like him to just shut up? Have a guess. More of him later though.

We also talk ‘invasion games’ which is a new one on me and for a second I’m left wondering how I could’ve missed this concept, given the amount of time I give to football. Turns out though it’s just a bit like attack versus defence. Later, I’m also introduced to other labels for stuff that I already have a name for. After nearly 40 years of watching, playing and coaching football this is a little bit like learning a new language! I’ll probably just stick to using the same terms I always have for the sake of my Under 10s.

Being the social animal that I am I spend lunch time in my car, listening to the radio. If you know me, you’d expect nothing less. On the walk there though, I’m collared by one of the young coaches on the course. I recognise him. He recognises me. It turns out that he’s an ex-pupil, now 22. I’m fully expecting a punch in the face, but he’s nothing but complimentary. He now works in video analysis for a rugby league team and he’s keen to let me know that he got his GCSE in English!

For the afternoon session – as it will be for all of our Saturdays in December – we take to the indoor 3G pitch where we’re either running coaching sessions or taking part in them. Having paired up in the morning we’d designed sessions to run and now it’s time to give them a go. Now, despite a health scare earlier this year, I’d like to think that I’ve kept myself fit, so a few hours running around a pitch holds no fears for me. However, it’s a different story at the end of the warm-up! I’m knackered! We warm up for around 15 minutes, with several short, sharp drills and by the end of it all I can feel my heart hammering inside my chest. As the first pair of coaches set up their drill though, I catch my breath and I’m up and volunteering as they introduce their game.

This is the structure for the afternoon then. Each pair presents their drill and for 10 minutes, those who can still move freely take part. It’s a harsh baptism for this particular 46 year-old! During the first drill I’m not too bad, but in the midst of the second I realise I’m chasing shadows. Experience takes over and I gather myself and start to work smarter. I can’t chase every ball anymore so I start to read the game, cutting off space when I defend and moving into it when I attack, reading what opponents might do and crucially, moving less!

As we stand around afterwards giving feedback, I have a look at my fellow coaches. I’m fairly sure that I’m the oldest. Several of the group are between 17 and 22. In terms of my fitness, I’m out of my depth. I resolve to grow up a bit and realise that I just need to take part. It’s a better alternative than running until I drop! My partner, Nick, is similarly knackered and we’re glad of the rest we’ll get when it comes to both setting up and running our drill.

Our drill is well received and there is no negative feedback. People have obviously enjoyed it, as has the coach running the course and he’s generous in his praise. Even at my age I can’t help but smile. Even at my age it makes me feel proud. It’s a huge positive to find that your peers have loved what you’ve set them to do and I feel like we’re standing out in the best possible way. I jog my way through the rest of the day and after we’ve given peer feedback and written down our homework, it’s time, thank goodness, to head home. I’m exhausted, but have had an undeniably enjoyable day.

My next stop on the coaching journey is another Huddersfield leisure centre. It’s a Wednesday night and we’re set for three hours of fun learning First Aid. I’m genuinely surprised that the main focus of this course seems to be cardiac arrests. I coach 9 & 10 year-olds, but I’m assured that it can happen, so I’m glad of the knowledge gained. Our rather confident and talkative friend is there and proceeds, once again, to do a lot more talking than listening. God help anyone who suffers with anymore than a dead leg at the side of his pitch.

I leave at 9.30pm and drive home praying that at least one chip shop will be open. My prayers aren’t answered though and I’m forced to head to McDonalds insetad. Silver linings? Turns out every cloud is a cloud after all.

The following Saturday I’m put through my paces once again. Same format – classroom based in the morning as the coach battles with the self appointed Special One of the group, who continues to give us the benefit of his experience as often as he can. He coaches three teams you know. He coaches girls. He coaches boys. No doubt he coaches everything in between too. I believe Pep Guardiola started in much the same way, but unlike our fella, he doesn’t like to talk about it.

We’re not even safe from him out on the pitches for the practical sessions either! During the instructions he always has a question and during the feedback there’s always something that he would’ve done different or a nit to pick! By week three, when we all stand in a circle during feedback he’s actually taken to standing in the middle of it, as if he’s the bloke running the course. Worse though, is the fact that he doesn’t get any quieter!

During the afternoon work out I manage to injure myself, which if you’ve ever played football with me in the past, will come as no surprise. I’m delaying an attack by jockeying backwards instead of diving into a tackle – we’ve discussed this in the morning session, so I’m putting my learning into practice in search of Brownie points. However, my tired legs can’t keep up with my brain and I tumble backwards going literally head over heels and narrowly avoiding being stood on by advancing players. I feel something pull in my groin and I know that it’s going to be a long afternoon after that! I’m a big boy and soldier on, but I’m limping quite heavily by the time we leave. Clearly tonight will be spent with my feet up on the settee, recuperating!

On the plus side of things we tweak our successful drill from last week and, if anything it goes even better. People know exactly where they should be and what they should be doing and in the very last seconds a pinpoint cross is headed in spectacularly right in front of Norman, our coach and the FA mentor who has turned up! You couldn’t script this. I go on to use the same drill with my Under 10s in our next training session and again, it goes well. I might actually be learning something! That stuff about old dogs is clearly rubbish!

I have another midweek session, this time only until 8.30 and it’s about Safeguarding.  Because of my job I’m familiar with the subject matter so it’s not too draining. The next night I have a Parents’ Evening at work and so by the following Saturday, I’m worn out.

There’s no let up though and to make matters worse Norman has decided that we’ll have a short time to work on our drills before we go to the pitches to run through them. A morning exercise session! We’ll be doing some drills this morning, then some classroom stuff, followed by the remaining drills. I know straight away that my body will seize up once I’ve stopped and so the afternoon session promises to be testing to say the least. I mean, did I mention that I’m 46?

As predicted, as we warm up in the afternoon I can practically hear my joints creaking. My brain is screaming things like ‘sit down’, ‘hot chocolate’, ‘Wurthers Originals, pipe and slippers’, but I have to ignore it and push myself on. We change our drill completely – the only group to do so – and again it works well. So well in fact that the coach tells us that had he been running a similar session he’d have done the exact same drill. With bashful grins we write up our feedback knowing that Nick had taken the drill from the FA website the night before! Turns out there’s no substitute for experience after all! A good day all round and now we’re nearly qualified FA coaches to boot!

With no midweek session, the final Saturday dawns and it promises to be a short one. We’re classroom based today, writing up our journals and discussing football matters with Norman. Sounds great. My feet certainly favour this approach, as does the rest of my aching, middle-aged body.

I was told before starting the course that ‘all you have to do is turn up…you can’t actually fail’. But this has certainly been far harder than that. From what I gather, the course has changed due to the FA’s new ‘DNA’ approach. I’ve had homework, research to do and been faced with a very hands on approach during all of the sessions. It’s certainly not been a case of simply turning up and feigning listening every day. We’ve had to be proactive. We’ve had to think for ourselves. We’ve been put on the spot. And God knows we’ve been tested physically – or is that just me and the other older members of the group? Whichever way I look at it, I feel like I’ve earned my title of Level 1 coach, that’s for sure.

When we’re finished we say our goodbyes and I’m off to my car, tired but happy. There’s lots to do – Christmas is three days away – but as I drive home I realise that the whole thing has definitely been worth it. I’ve certainly improved as a coach. The three training sessions that I’ve put on across the time that I’ve been on the course have been varied, enjoyable and productive. I can see my players improving and they’re enjoying what we do. We haven’t had the chance to put our learning into practice due to games being postponed, but I’m really hopeful that some of the things we’ve worked on will bear fruit on the pitch. Whatever happens, I’m now more creative as a coach and hope that when I’m stood on the touchline trying to resolve some kind of problem or other I’ll be better placed to come up with a solution. Mind you, until the FA come up with a module on tying laces with frozen fingers, there’ll always be something that I can’t solve. Perhaps that’s on the Level 2 course…

 

 

 

Despite my age, I can’t explain… (Part 1 of an occasional series)

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Me, not understanding stuff.

As a person gets older it’s widely accepted that they get wiser. It stands to reason, yes? You read more, watch more and simply experience more and all the while you’re like a little owl, made entirely out of sponge, just soaking up the good stuff. Because with age comes wisdom, right?

Wrong. Well wrong in my case, anyway. For me there’s an uncomfortable amount that leaves me wondering exactly what it’s all about. And it takes up an equally uncomfortable amount of my time.

That said, I feel fairly confident that lots of people will share my idea that there are just some things that you’re always going to be unable to get your head around. I mean, who among us can explain the popularity of creatures like Gemma Collins? Exactly.

“I’m a husband, father, son, teacher, graduate and generally something of a man of the world.”

I think we’ve established that in my case middle age has caused me to question quite a bit about myself. If you haven’t, scroll down past this blog and it’s all there. |There’s pictures if you get bored and it’s mildly amusing too. However, having put quite a bit of thought into it I’ve come to realise that there’s a great deal of stuff that defies any wisdom that I’ve managed to pick up along the way. I’m a husband, father, son, teacher, graduate and generally something of a man of the world. Stop sniggering. I’m kind of a big deal and yet I still find myself waiting for the wisdom that allows me to crack many a knowledge nugget. So let’s start episode one of another occasional series.

I’ll start with one that I know will prove controversial, especially here in Yorkshire. But here we go – I just don’t understand Rugby League. I’m not mocking it – each to their own. But I just don’t get it. I can watch it and to some extent feel entertained. But just when I feel like I understand it a question will pop into my head. I question why, if as I’m told, it’s a proper sport and a real man’s sport, does it attract so few supporters? The average attendance for the 2018 season of Soooooper League was just 8547. Surely it can’t be that good then? Also, if I do watch, I can’t get over the fact that it seems that every few seconds blokes just run into each other. Furthermore, the rule states that the ball can’t be passed forward, but to me it looks like it’s going forward on an almost constant basis. And given my feelings about being tactile, well I’m sorry, but there’s just a little bit too much groping going on. It’s less a sport and more like the scenes outside a nightclub at closing time when I was in my youth. In fact, the more I think about it the more it becomes like wrestling with added ball. And it’s not even a proper ball.

But it’s OK, rugby league fans. Here’s a little treat just for you. The next thing that, despite my years, I just don’t understand is Rugby Union. Again, I know this might prove controversial with some. In fact, my views on old rugbo have left some apoplectic in the past, which has only served to make me worse, I must admit. So in not understanding rugby union, you could say that I fail to understand maturity as well. It can’t be helped though – it really is a hilarious sport.

Let’s begin, again, with attendances. In the 2017-18 Rugby Union Premiership the average attendance was a mighty 14,165. So again, real sport, man’s sport etc, etc. Why does hardly anyone bother watching it then? And are you allowed to even attend if you don’t have, a) a Range Rover b) a faux agricultural flat-cap c) a wax jacket d) one of those old wicker picnic baskets and a tartan rug?

The hilarity really starts though, when you look at the game itself. Same excuse for a ball, same propensity (in my opinion) to pass it forward regardless. Then there’s the well rehearsed argument that we football fans always hear about rugby union. Get this – the players all call the ref ‘sir’. And they don’t backchat. Or swear. And they all love their mums. Thoroughly decent chaps. Just don’t mention eye gouging. Or having to drink your own urine from the local viscount’s welly. I don’t get it. I don’t care what you call the ref. I don’t care that they listen politely. If they’re that nice and well-mannered, then why is he having to speak to them in the first place? I’ll tell you why. Invariably it’s because Tristran has punched Spencer sqaure in the face again. Or because the heir to the Dukedom of Gloucester has just stuck his thumb up the arse of Prince Edward’s butler. Probably.

“Can we sing a song now, sir?”

And then there’s line-outs. We all line up while one of the ‘guys’ chucks the ball towards us. Then we lift another one of the ‘guys’ really high so he can catch it, only one of the guys from the other team might catch it. Oh, the jeopardy! And then, once somebody’s caught it, we all fall on top of each other. Any excuse for a roll around in the mud, which is great because soon there’ll be another excuse for a muddy fumble when the ref calls Scrum. Scrum, sir? Yes, sir. Grab Boselion-Smyth’s testicles, sir? Of course, sir! What’s that, now we all link arms, sir? Is there a hearty song to be sung, sir? No, sir? And I stick my head between Mortimer’s legs, sir? Rest his scrotum on the back of my neck, sir? Aah, brings back memories of boarding school. Can we sing a song now, sir? No, sir? Shall we just push each other until we all fall into a heap in the mud, sir? Jolly good, sir! Tally-ho, chaps!

Word for word that, as well. Obviously you have to be a lot cleverer than me to understand rugby. Or maybe I’m just not a real man? Perish the thought.

So what else, despite my years, is still beyond me? Well, salad for one thing. People say that when it’s summer I should be eating salad. Why? Why will leaves cool me down? Why will some radish hit the spot just because the weather’s nice? I’m really not a fan of cold food anyway. We didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up, but we had enough for a cooker and a microwave. Both of which made cold food not only hot, but edible. Everything tastes better hot.

“I do actually eat the odd salad.”

But the appeal of leaves is beyond me, hot or cold. I thought they were more for hedgehogs to be fair. I’m not against them per se. I do actually eat the odd salad. But they do nothing for me and therefore, I feel quite justified in saying that I just don’t understand salad. When people tell me that lettuce is delicious I just tend to think they’ve temporarily lost their mind. Or that their taste buds have shut down for the day. Or that if they went on ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ they’d inevitably find that they were descended from a long line of rabbits. Lettuce is just crunchy water. Cucumber’s the same. Absolutely pointless. I could live to be 150 and I still wouldn’t understand salad. Although I’d probably have to eat a it more of it to reach such an age.

Moving on, I’m going to bring things right into the 21st Century. Something that is both really popular and completely beyond any wisdom I might have is Snapchat. Firstly, the whole point of it seems pointless. You post a photo that won’t last. Why? But before you post it you can do the thing that I really don’t understand. You can put zany filters on it. That’s right kids! Ever imagined what you’d look like as a dog or even an animal who’s identity is a little unclear, but narrowed down by the presence of whiskers? Crack on, then. But before you post it – for a few seconds – why not put another filter on it so that you look just like you’ve smeared Vaseline over your face? Or maybe you could change the crazy filter so that you look like a cat, or a hamster. You could strecth your face…or squash it. The squashy face one seems particularly popular and yet if I walk up to a friend and squish their cheeks in a bit of a choochy face thing, that’s harrassment. Yep, I don’t get it. I’m sure this makes me more old age fanclub than middle age fanclub to some, but I don’t care. The whole thing simply makes no sense. Those of you who have read one of my earlier blogs might recall how for a long time I didn’t understand Facebook though, so maybe I’m the problem here and not Snapchat.

“…at one point I remove my hands from the steering wheel…”

Imagine that one day I gave you a lift. It doesn’t matter where. I gave you a lift and along the way I drove my car at the kind of speed that made you feel decidedly uncomfortable. I threw it round tight corners, swept around in long arcing u-turns and then drove us down a hill  – again at break-neck velocity – that seemed damn near vertical. Oh, and at one point I removed my hands from the steering wheel and threw both arms in the air, whooping like I scored the winning goal in the cup final or had just won the lottery, while displaying the kind of facial expression one might associate with a mad man. Not the best car journey you’ve ever had, right? You wouldn’t be accepting another lift again any time soon. So explain to me the attraction of rollercoasters.

Despite my age, despite my travels, despite visiting several theme parks and even partaking, regretfully, in some of said experiences, I just don’t understand the appeal of rollercoasters. I don’t think I ever will.

“This was The Hoppings.”

Part of this lack of understanding could well be put down to chunks of my childhood spent around a far more rudimentary type of thrill-seeking than what we see today. Let me explain. In Newcastle, growing up, one of the highlights of the summer was the visit of a travelling fair; The Hoppings. Now this should conjure up images of the pastoral – village life, communities enjoying themselves, human harmony with a certain rustic charm and innocence. Well, might I suggest you get rid of that image, sharpish. Imagine a cross between scrap yard with rides and a particularly vicious open prison, where hundreds of teenagers and young adults would roam, snarling and scowling at each other, as well as often getting into fights. Imagine a place where rides existed, but the notion of health & safety didn’t. This was The Hoppings. Every year, I’d go and every year I’d have forgotten how terrifying it was. I won’t go into great detail, but in short, this wasn’t a place to be trusted and I’ve never understood the popular fashion of risking your life for around a minute of being thrown around while you scream at top volume. Call me old-fashioned, but I’ve always associated screams with pain.

And so it was that I grew into an adult who, despite the freedom to travel and indulge in whatever pleasures I chose, would never understand rollercoasters and other ‘fun’ of this ilk. My wife and my children, on the other hand, are confirmed thrill-seekers, but it’s roundly accepted that I’m much more a confirmed coat holder. I’ve visited several theme parks and am more than happy to sit out the adrenaline rush. That’s not to say that I haven’t sampled some of the rides, however. It’s not blind ignorance driving this. I’ve been brave and I’ve summoned my pioneering spirit in order to either prove something to myself or simply not spoil other people’s enjoyment. Yet, every time I do, I’m left with a mixture of bewilderment and terror. I don’t understand rollercoasters. I don’t understand the ‘thrill’. How can the feeling that you may die be in any way thrilling? How can being turned upside down and sent hurtling down a ridiculously steep hill be a thrill? No, sorry, despite my years, you’ve lost me with rollercoasters.

I’ve been a massive fan of music for as long as I can remember. My parents played me The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Mamas and Papas, Dionne Warwick, Johnny Mathis, Rod Stewart and loads more and from there a love of music was born. I was an avid viewer of Top of The Pops from an early age, soon developing my own tastes for artists such as Adam and The Ants, Duran Duran, The Jam and loads more. As I got older, my tastes broadened and I listened to an eclectic mix of music, collecting tapes and vinyl as I went. As a young man I fell in love with first The Stone Roses and later Oasis and Blur and entering middle age my tastes have continued to broaden. So if anyone can explain the appeal of either Ed Sheeran or Mumford and Sons, I’d gladly listen.

“I’m not knocking anyone for enjoying what he does.”

Sheeran and Mumford and have sold untold millions of records (although I realise that nowadays that no one buys music and it’s actually only views and streams that count). Both leave me cold. I can stomach Sheeran despite how bland at all is. His music simply passes through me, like a bad pint. And I’m not knocking anyone for enjoying what he does. Friends and family tell me he’s great and that’s an opinion that they’re completely free to hold. But they’re wrong. I don’t care about his Galway girl or his Lego house and if he’s thinking out loud, then you can bet I’m not listening. On top of it all, he has the look of a ginger potato. Despite my years, I simply don’t understand young Sheeran and his appeal.

Mumford and Sons however, are even more of a puzzle to me. What I like to call, ‘another level of Eh?’ A riddle, wrapped in a puzzle, coated in a conundrum and deep fried in bemusement. There can be no other verdict than the undeniable fact that they are shite. Two paragraphs ago I stated that I’d gladly listen to people’s explanations of them: I’d like to retract that. Mumford and Sons are not only beyond my comprehension, they’re beyond explanation. I’m no officianado, but when a band are not only exclusively made up members of the landed gentry, but all called things like Rufus and Hugo, you and I shouldn’t be listening. We should be actively protesting against them. So enough, of this; I’m off to make a placard. ‘What do we want! Mumford OUT! When do we want it? FIVE YEARS AGO!’

The final thing that I don’t understand, and the thing that actually prompted this particular blog is a little bit left field. Gregg Wallace’s smile on Masterchef. Or, given that he’s not a totally seperate entity when he’s away from that show, just Gregg Wallace’s smile.

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Look again folks. That’s not actually the real Gregg Wallace.

“I’m not here to mock him or to get a few cheap laughs.”

Now, don’t get me wrong with this one. This isn’t a cheap shot at Gregg Wallace, who you could describe as a bit of an easy target. Despite certain things I’ve read – the ‘Greg?’ tweet to the army veteran stands out and he seems to be regularly annoying young women – I’ve got no problem with him. I’ve watched him on Masterchef and other programmes and he seems OK to me. And in terms of his smile, I’m not here to mock him or to get a few cheap laughs. I’m really not a fan of my own smile and regularly have to make myself laugh for the camera in order to not spoil family photographs. I genuinely feel like the bloke who forgot how to smile. So, I have no reason to start mocking Mr Wallace and his grin. I just don’t understand it.

Gregg Wallace’s smile is just a bit weird. In fact, it’s a lot weird. I’m sure it’s a genuine expression of joy and happiness, but is anyone’s smile meant to take up half of their face? Gregg’s does. Not only that, but his smile makes his shoulders scrunch right up and his eyes shrink, like he’s got terrible cramp. And let’s get this straight; he’s smiling, not laughing. His smile could mark him out as some kind of evil genius – it’s the smile of a deranged Bond villain, as far as I can see. When he smiles his knees seem to buckle and he visibly bends. It’s like that bit in old cartoons where the character takes the ‘villain potion’ and then starts to change dramatically, frame by frame and in overly jerky movements, into something green and evil looking.

“…you cannot unsee Gregg’s smile.”

I’ve watched on Masterchef as a contestant tells him what it is they’re cooking and Gregg will react by telling them something typically non committal like ‘Good luck’ and then positively explode into the kind of smile that might indicate he’s lost control of all bodily functions. It’s effortless, while in fact employing seemingly every fibre of his being and I’m fascinated. Gregg Wallace’s smile is like a dance move. I have to really concentrate in order to smile. I dread having my photograph taken and have often, on the quiet, been known to practice smiling in my bathroom mirror, such is my hatred of what it does to my face. Gregg Wallace’s smile though, is nothing short of a tour de force, like no smile you’ll ever see again. In fact, I’m sure that scientists, really clever ones as well, would confirm that once you’ve seen it you cannot unsee Gregg’s smile. It will never be forgotten and will in fact erase something really useful from your mind in order to just sit there and crop up for you from time to time.

Gregg Wallace’s smile is less smile and more chemical reaction and despite my advancing years, my descent into middle age and my many moons of learning, I simply don’t understand it.

So there we have it. Turns out I did grow older, but didn’t manage to acquire that much wisdom. Not enough to stop me wandering around daily, pondering the kind of things you ‘ve just read about. And certainly not enough to be able to explain Mumford and Sons, rollercoasters or the bloke off Masterchef’s mega-smile without my head hurting.

 

 

Lace tying with frozen fingers, wrestling with goal frames and ever so precisely painting white lines – Welcome to grassroots football!

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It’s either very windy or we’ve used the wrong flag.

Picture the scene. It’s 11.50 am on a Saturday in early September. The sun is high in the sky and it is already an unreasonably hot day. In the middle of one of 5 football fields in Morley, West Yorkshire three men are chatting. All are tired, having only just completed a week at work, as well as running an hour and a half training session each for our respective teams. One of us has also only just finished an hour long fitness session for some of the members of both teams. Two of us are recovering from operations, although mine was a few months ago and so it’s safe to say I’m over the worst. All are hot – that’ll be the sun for you; not always a regular visitor to these parts. And as a result of the heat, two of these three men are wearing shorts. The other – me – really, really wants to wear shorts, but is sticking to tracksuit bottoms, the legacy of long, skinny, hairy legs that resulted in many a cruel childhood taunt as well as being the butt of my father’s best and most hilarious joke about putting them away because, ‘there’s a blackbird up there, feeding her young ‘uns, she’ll mistake them for worms’. I believe that young people nowadays call this banter. I just always wondered why my dad couldn’t get a new joke. Suffice to say, I prefer the safety of the heat to the peril of shorts.

“…Saturday has almost gone.”

We’re eight days away from the opening day of the season for Under 10s teams in the Garforth Junior Football League. Our pitches need to be bigger and we’re moving to a flatter area, so this means that we’ll have to measure both new pitches out, before marking the lines in white paint. I’ve been told that this will take around three hours, but I reckon that’s quite the over-estimation, given that I’ve marked three pitches out before in less time than that, on my own. I’m wrong. We finish just over four hours later. I’m tired, hot and I haven’t eaten since breakfast – it’s now 3.30pm and Saturday has almost gone.

I’ve only been involved in grassroots football for 10 months now, but already I’m addicted. I started out as just a dad, taking my then 7 year old to train with his first football team. This was a task I’d dreamed of doing from a young age – I always wanted to be a dad, taking his son to football. It was too late on in the season for him to actually sign for the club – and frankly he was way behind almost all of the other boys in terms of ability – so he trained every week. We were there come rain, hail, wind and snow. It didn’t matter. I watched him develop and get a greater idea of what was required of him on the pitch. By the time he was asked to sign on he’d improved enough to hold his own and when the moment finally came for him to put on his first match shirt I almost shed a proud dad’s tear, even though he was almost drowning in every item of the kit. The socks would have comfortably pulled up around his waist.

Two months into that season, however, and I was asked to take over the running of the team. Turns out other parents and club officials were unhappy with the coach and so, when I did OK filling in when he went on holiday, that was enough to convince people of my qualifications for the job..

I must admit, I had no intention of ever coaching the team. The thought hadn’t even entered my head, even as I watched on, frustrated at some of the training sessions being put on. However, when I was asked to take over I couldn’t say no. As a teacher, I’d coached before. As a football fan I would regularly watch matches, screaming at the telly about the wrong pass or a terrible tactical decision. As a man, the offer was way too good for my ego to resist and as a Geordie, well, we invented the game and are born with an encyclopedic knowledge of it, so denying the kids of that would have just been cruel!

I’ve been ‘officially’ in charge of Glen Juniors Whites (Under 10s) since the middle of November 2017. My team are what we call the ‘development’ side, essentially the kids with less ability in the squad that makes up the two teams within the age group. However, what my boys might lack in skill, they more than make up for in desire, togetherness, hard work and spirit. But they’re adding more and more skills as the weeks go by.

“…half the squad gawped as if a pterodactyl had just swooped past.”

Training sessions have often been spent working on basics – can we stop the ball and pass it, can we take a touch and get a shot on target or can we sprint from one cone to another? But even then this throws up some unlikely and often amusing scenarios. On any given Thursday evening I can be preparing to give instructions when I notice that four or five of the boys are engaged in something other than listening; important stuff such as ‘dabbing’ or ‘flossing’. Just last week a boy rode past on a bike and I had to stop the session while half of the squad gawped as if a pterodactyl had just swooped past. And my worst fears were confirmed when, as we played a match on a field near the airport, one of my defenders nudged the other one and they both turned their eyes away from the game going on around them and pointed in wonder at a passing low flying jet! It doesn’t matter how many times you tell them to stay focused you can guarantee that there will be at least five moments in any one match when you catch someone, switched off and gawping open mouthed at something remarkably unremarkable.

Our ‘development’ status has also meant that our team has not been successful in the traditional sense of the word. To put it bluntly, last season we played 17 games, won one, drew one and lost the rest. For a couple of months we simply weren’t competitive. And yet still we made progress. In our second game of the season, facing a team whose senior side actually play non-league football we were trounced to the point of ridicule from our opposition. I was ‘just’ a parent that day, but still it was difficult viewing. The home team’s parents were brutal and openly mocked our boys. The home team themselves swapped goalkeepers, giving their regular keeper the chance to play outfield – the ultimate act of thumb biting to your opposition – and he promptly scored a hat-trick. Two of our boys left the field sobbing, refusing to carry on. However, when we scored our first goal of the season – our consolation in that game – their coaches were visibly angry, shouting at their 8 and 9 year old defenders for losing their man and costing their team a goal. That was progress. We’d broken our duck and to paraphrase the great Kevin Keegan’s infamous Sky TV rant, told our mighty opposition, ‘we’re still fighting for this game’.

The progress continued throughout the season and we were rarely trounced again. We were generally competitive and almost always scored. My boys were happy playing football and I found that I was also making progress as a coach. But I quickly learnt that there are always surprises in grassroots football.

One of the biggest (and dullest) surprises about becoming a coach at this level has been the admin. Before each game last season we would have to line the kids up, with their ID cards ready to be scrutinised by the opposition coach. In turn, I would have to take a long hard look at their team to check whether all was on the level. I lost count of the amount of times I cracked the same joke – that they couldn’t play a particular player because he was obviously not the kid in the photograph. The coaches all saw the funny side, but judging by the faces of some of the kids, they genuinely believed that I wasn’t going to let them play. Sometimes, 9 year olds just don’t have a sense of humour.

“I’d hand mine over looking like I’d got a four-year-old to fill it in.”

On top of this we’d then have to fill in team sheets, ticking off the kids that had played. At the end of each game you’d get them signed by the opposition coach, note the name of the referee, award a Fair Play mark – we once got marked 97 out of 100; what had we done to merit a 3% deduction? – and then swap sheets with the other team, making sure that we only swapped the right colour sheet. And let me tell you, filling in one of these sheets in the middle of January when your hands are frozen is nigh on impossible. I’d hand mine over looking like I’d got a four-year-old to fill it in. These sheets would then have to be photographed together and emailed to the league for them to verify what had gone on, like if they hadn’t seen a bit of paper the game hadn’t actually happened.

This system has now changed into something that should be a great deal easier – an internet based system, backed up with the sending of a text to confirm your result. However, neither are available to me due to the fact that the FA are yet to issue me with a log in and still haven’t sent me the text. The season, however, is almost a month old! I’ll never learn to love admin.

Easily one of the most unpleasant things that we have to put up with in grassroots football has to be the weather. Standing on a touchline means that you’re left wide open to the elements. Steve MaClaren’s time as England manager means that there’s no way in the world that I’d dare to use an umbrella, so I’m frequently soaked to the skin. And I never thought I’d buy another pair of football boots once I’d got into my forties, but warming up on park pitches often means puddles and mud and trainers simply don’t cut it. Yet still, I’m regularly getting back into the car and having to drive home with soaking wet feet! Our referee sometimes wears wellies (and probably has lovely dry feet as a result), but I’m afraid that male vanity won’t let me go that far!

On top of the rain, this winter we were blighted with quite a bit of snow and although this meant the postponement of several games – and the bonus of a warm Sunday morning for all involved – we couldn’t avoid training. Our club trains at a local high school during the darker months, as they have a 3G pitch and floodlights, meaning that we can train through even the most inclement weather. Great news! This is bad enough when the cold is bitter and the wind blowing in from across the moors brings with it an element of ice. Layering takes on a new meaning! However, coach a session through a storm and you will truly know the meaning of cold. Shackleton, Scott, Hilary and all the other Polar pioneers were amazing explorers, but could they do it on a wet and windy Thursday night in Tingley?

“…have you ever tried tying someone else’s laces with frozen fingers?”

The cold weather, combined with a team full of kids under 10 can also bring another problem that, at first, I hadn’t reckoned with. I’m regularly asked to tie their laces! Now here, we have a bit of a problem. From what I can gather I was taught to tie laces in a rather peculiar fashion – one so peculiar that my wife has asked my kids to ignore the way I show them! So when I tie the laces of my team it quite often results in some very funny looks – and they can’t even tie laces! Furthermore though, have you ever tried tying someone else’s laces with frozen fingers? Let me tell you, it’s quite the conundrum and there have been numerous times when I’ve considered asking an adult for help, before remembering that I am an adult.

At the moment the weather is good. We’ve barely had a spot of rain during training or games and some of our pre season friendlies were played in baking hot sun. Wonderful as you stand and bask in the glorious heat, but terrible when you get home and look in the mirror to realise that, yes, you are receding, otherwise those livid red patches of sunburn on your increasingly large forehead would never have appeared. But the sun will fade and soon, as with every season, we’ll be out there, every Thursday and Sunday getting soaked, frozen or both. We’ll walk across pitches and simply sink into a puddle, because after all this is grassroots football and our pitches are often at the mercy of the local council. Our games may be played on pitches where there are no lines, just cones to give players a rough guide as to when the ball goes out of play, because the coach hasn’t had the time to mark the lines given the fact that he’s a husband and dad and has a full time job. And barring the generous help of parents, this is all the responsibility of the coach. Again, I hadn’t realised that I’d have to be doing this before accepting the role and probably imagined that the football fairies were responsible for white lines, Respect barriers, goals, nets and corner flags. Thankfully, the parents of our boys are quite willing to rally round and help out, although I think some of this is done more out of pity than anything else, as they watch me wrestling with a set of goals!

“…scoring goals is always the dream.”

Another surprise – which really shouldn’t have been – is the number of 9 year olds who only want to play as a striker or a midfielder. Now I understand that almost nobody wants to play in goal, but in our team that stretches to defence as well. Even our best defenders are reluctant to say the least. In training, before a game, mid game and after a game you can be sure to be pestered by the same’ish question – ‘Can I play in midlfield/as striker?’ Playing regularly is sometimes not enough – scoring goals is always the dream. It’s understandable, I suppose. I mean, who wants to be John Stones or Kyle Walker (or God forbid Phil Jones) when they could be De Bruyne, Lingard, Ali, Kane or Aguero? And while it can be irritating, especially during a game, to be asked, I have to say that my boys are always good enough to accept the my decision. It never stops them asking again though!

Recently I managed to have a morning that encompassed many of the plus and minus points of grassroots football. So let me end by telling you about it.

Picture the scene. It’s 8.45am on a Sunday in late September. It’s no longer sunny and in fact it’s getting more and more like winter as the days pass. Two men stand on adjacent football pitches. We’re both tired. We’ve both been at work all week and one of us was out inspecting the pitches yesterday afternoon. Despite the coolness of the air one is wearing shorts, while the other, sensibly, has opted for tracksuit bottoms. There are sparrows feeding their young ‘uns nearby, after all.

We’re three weeks into the new season in Division C1, for Under 10s, of the Garforth Junior League. Our pitch is bigger and flatter and the white lines have recently been re-marked by one of the other coaches. One coach has managed to erect the first of his goals and is busily working on his corner the flags. The other, me, has managed to get all of the parts of his first goal out of the bag and has laid them out, as per the YouTube video he watched last night so that he’d finally know what he was doing. Unfortunately he’s forgotten the drawings he did in order to remember. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. Is the cross bar three long sections or two and a small bit? Are the posts two long sections high? Has he got enough connectors? Hang on, is someone secretly filming this? Can he expect a visit from a heavily disguised Ant and Dec any time soon to eventually tell him he’s been pranked and he’s going to look like a total fool on live TV some time soon?

“The other coach is done. The pressure is on.”

Twenty minutes later and he has assembled some sections of the goal. But they clearly don’t actually go together to make a goal. So he’s just randomly put some bits together. Maybe he’ll just make a raft? He’s quietly cursing. The other coach is done. The pressure is on. He has a thought. He’s missing a bit that he needs. So back he trudges to the clubhouse to hunt among the other goals for the missing section. Five minutes later it’s clear that the other section doesn’t exist and he has made it up. Back he trudges to his raft.

It will take another fifteen minutes before he has two working goals. He has to take a look at the other coach’s complete goals in order to work out where he’s going wrong. And by that time some parents and team members have turned up and helped out. Corner flags are being placed in the ground, the Respect barrier is being put out. Kick off is in about 20 minutes and he hasn’t even said ‘hello’ to his team, let alone started warming them up. And then he spots something that will delay things even longer. A kindly dog owner has allowed his or her pooch to poo on the pitch and then pretended not to notice. He quietly curses some more. Oh well, at least it’s a new experience. Digging a carrier bag out of his kit bag he proceeds to remove the offending sloppy brown calling card, before trudging back over the fields to place it in the bin provided by the council for such things. It’s a shame that the dog’s owner didn’t know these things exist. Maybe someone should paint them all bright red and put pictures of dogs on them. He reminds himself never to get a dog.

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With about ten minutes to go before kick he is finally ready to warm up his team, before giving a quick team talk. The team still don’t all have shirts due to an order taking way too long, so some will play in borrowed club hoodies. The game, somewhat bucking the trend of the day, will go well and our team wins, despite being 1-0 down at half-time. However, there’s just time for one more moment to leave the coach looking to the skies for the kind of divine intervention that he knows doesn’t really happen. From somewhere, during the game, a goalkeeper’s shirt arrives and it’s decided that one of our subs can go around to the goal and, when the ball is down the other end of the field, get our keeper to swap his outfield shirt for the keeper’s top. Easy, yes? In the hands of two 9 year olds, no and the coach is left to watch on in sheer horror as first, the message is totally confused and our sub starts to wander back carrying the goalkeeper’s shirt. Then, deciding that he needs to carry out the instructions our keeper takes his outfield shirt off and is left without a shirt for a moment as the ball approaches. Luckily it’s cleared away and he can put on the right shirt. But no. No, he can’t. The boy simply cannot get the shirt over his head or his arms through the arm holes, due to wearing goalkeeper gloves! The coach quietly curses. After what seems like an eternity though, the problem is solved and we have a goalkeeper wearing the correct shirt. The goal is intact and we go on to win. It’s been a hell of a day, but I’ve absolutely loved it!

Welcome to grassroots football!

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